Exclusive Interview: Babylon Composer Justin Hurwitz

Jovan Adepo plays Sidney Palmer in Babylon from Paramount Pictures. Photo Credit: Scott Garfield

Damien Chazelle reunites with composer (and former college roommate) Justin Hurwitz for Babylon, out this weekend from Paramount Pictures. The film marks the fifth collaboration between the pair, with one of those films—2016’s La La Land—netting Hurwitz Oscars for Original Score and Original Song. This time around, Hurwitz eschewed the jazz beats of La La Land for a more rock and roll, party music feel, feeding into the film’s portrayal of early Hollywood as a Wild West of booze, drugs, and sex. Below, Boxoffice Pro speaks with Hurwitz on work on Babylon and his collaborative relationship with Chazelle.

Your score for La La Land heavily drew upon jazz; here, you’re working on a film in the jazz era, but one that’s historically based, whereas La La Land is contemporary. Did that change your approach at all?

No, not really. In fact, even though [Babylon] is a historical movie taking place at a specific time and place, we tried really hard not to write 1920s jazz. We wanted to steer clear of ‘20s music, because we’ve heard it so many times. And it’s kind of quaint, at least the music that was recorded in the ‘20s. I think there was probably, according to some accounts, a wider range of music, a more interesting range of music that was going on underground or at parties at the time. But the music that we think of that was actually recorded in the ‘20s is kind of tame, and we wanted to do something really aggressive and really wild. 

So I was taking much more of my inspiration from rock and roll riffs and modern dance music, like house music and EDM, than I was from jazz music. I arranged it for a jazz ensemble. The [band seen in the films, fronted by actor Jovan Adepo] is a believable band–a couple of trumpets, a couple of trombones–but the music itself hopefully does not sound anything like 1920s music.

That’s interesting, because costume designer Mary Zophres said she went for more historically inspired outfits vs. the more stereotypical flapper dresses. With the music, you’re also aiming for the unexpected, but by moving away from historical accuracy.

Some of the music is definitely more modern than it would have been. But in terms of the aggression of the jazz, the screaming trumpets and whatnot, it’s definitely not what we associate with the ‘20s. It’s very possible that there was music that had that tone. It’s just not what’s been encapsulated and saved for us. Damien built his movie around these really drug-fueled parties and scenes. So we wanted to go for music that was equally unhinged.

In those party scenes, even when people aren’t really dancing, the camera motion and construction of the scenes is so dancerly–it really meshes well with the music. 

A lot of the music, too, is not just party music. It’s not just performance music. It has to go back and forth between the party and other scenes. Damien’s always cutting away from parties and bands, but we keep the music going very often. We might have a band at a party, and the music is serving that, but then we might cut away to a different scene or outside the house or somewhere else, and the music keeps going as score. So it has to not just be believable for that band, but it has to fuel entire sequences sometimes. Sometimes we cut away from a party and we have a whole montage, [and] the music has to continue fueling those sequences.

So you have to be able to change the music quite a bit to fit the edit, I’d imagine. 

Absolutely. A lot of the music we pre-recorded before we shot the movie. Certainly anything that is performed on-screen. But Damien and I were also trying to be really meticulous with the script. Damien makes a lot of hand-drawn storyboards. We were trying to figure out the structure of it beforehand, even [down to] when we were going to cut away from a party. You could see in the script or from the storyboards when we’re in the party and when we’re not, so I could try to time the music outright. I could try to structure it. 

That being said, a lot changes in post-production. A lot changes in the edit. So a huge part of the job once I’m actually scoring the movie in post is extending or restructuring those things that we thought were structured right before but, now that the movie is actually coming together, we see that we need to change. So there’s a lot of going back and retooling that music.

Were there any substantial changes? Or was it mostly expanding what was already there?

Changes are happening every day. It never stops. In fact, it keeps going all the way through the mix. We record the music, we mix the music, and the changes keep happening. You’re having to hopefully make edits to what you recorded, because it’s a lot more expensive to have to go back and re-record. But the changes never stopped. I guess the biggest curveball on this project was that whole ending sequence, with the montage of movie clips. That was never planned. That was never how the movie was originally going to end. That was an 11th hour idea big idea that Damien had, and then we had to pause post-production so I could go off for another month and write that piece of music.

And that scene is really an encapsulation of what the film is all about.

There was a lot to do there. I was very excited to have to write it. The movie as it was written was going to end just with Singin’ in the Rain. He goes to the movie theater, he sees Singin’ in the Rain, he cries, he smiles. And then Singin’ in the Rain carries us through the first few minutes of the credits. Then once [Chazelle] got the big idea to go back through movie history–to make this “I want to be part of something bigger” theme really land– I was excited. “Oh, we need five or six more minutes of music. That’s great!” But it was also a big cue to write.

How has your working relatioship with Damien evolved over the years? You both really came up in the film industry together.

So much of it is remarkably the same as when we were 20. I work at the piano, make demos, email them off. Nowadays text them off, more often. So much of it feels exactly like it always did. There are other parts of it–as you make bigger movies you have more collaborators and more cooks in the kitchen, you have layers of producers and studio executives who we deal with. There are fewer limitations on what you can do in the studio. We get to book studios and musicians and really get what we are dreaming of, as opposed to the indie days where it’s like, “We can’t afford anything! Can you make four musicians work?” That’s exciting, though, to be honest. Making things with constraints has its own kind of energy, and great things come from it. I still love Whiplash. What they made on a little over $3 million with, I don’t know, a three week edit is pretty remarkable.

My favorite of his is First Man, and the score really stands out there. It has room to breathe.

I love working with Damien, because he wants the music to really be present and really be important in his movies in a way that not every filmmaker does.

As a composer, are there any dream projects–or genres, or media–that you’d like to tackle?

I’ve still only worked with Damien. I’ve never [gone] out looking for a project. I’m open if the right project comes along, the right filmmaker. It hasn’t. When I do something, I do it very, very thoroughly. When Damien has a movie, I throw myself into it and I’m just dedicated to it for as many years as it takes to make it. I’m basically at the moment [where I’m]  waiting to see what Damien makes next. I would love to do something different. I would love [to work with] a genre where I have to learn something new or learn some new instruments or some new tools, new techniques. I have nothing specific in mind. It’s not like I’m itching to do one genre or another, but I do hope I get to keep learning new things.

Are you learning new things with each score you compose?

For sure. Beyond the jazz band, I recorded kazoos and slide whistles [for Babylon], party horns for some of the cues. I recorded lots of circus sound. There’s a calliope. There’s a Mellotron, which is not period accurate, but it has a circus-y sound that we liked, and that’s all that matters. There’s There’s a Jiahu, a Chinese bone instrument. There is a lot of world percussion. We did many sessions with African percussion, with Latin percussion, with Asian percussion. It’s a very eclectic and eccentric score.

How did you come to be interested in composing?

I grew up playing piano. When I was 10, my parents got me some gear to compose–a synthesizer and this thing called a sequencer that lets you layer tracks. It took a floppy disk. It was a ‘90s version of what people use now, like Logic or Pro Tools. I just loved [composing] and found it very, very addictive. I started thinking, when I was in high school about going into composing. I always liked movies, and I felt like movies were a great canvas for music, especially if you like orchestral music. Movies are the best way to put forth orchestral music these days and have a lot of people hear it. They seemed like a great medium to write music for. I studied music in college and met Damien the very first week of freshman year. He was a director, and I was a composer.

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